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The Holiday Masses Descend, and Bruckner Reverberates
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 28 May 2013

There may be some systemic problems within the field of classical music. But now and then something happens that makes you feel proud of institutions and the music-loving public. One such event is the New York Philharmonic's annual free Memorial Day concert at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which took place on Monday night. For this program, the music director Alan Gilbert conducted the orchestra in just one work: Bruckner's 60-minute Symphony No. 3 in D minor.

Before the concert, the line of people waiting to enter the cathedral on Amsterdam Avenue snaked around the corner to 110th Street, down the block and up Morningside Drive. There were seats inside for 1,900. All were taken. With additional standing-room space and the cathedral's park (where the music could be heard on a sound system), the total attendance was estimated at 2,500.

Of course, hearing symphonic music in this enormous cathedral with its reverberant acoustics is problematic. When chords blur together it becomes almost impossible to make sense of harmonic progression. When the orchestra breaks into a passage of contrapuntal lines the music can sound like an echoing muddle.

Bruckner's Third, performed here in the 1959 Nowak edition, was more suited to the cathedral's acoustics than other works I have heard at these Memorial Day concerts. Like all of Bruckner's symphonies, this one emerges in long spans. A Brahms symphony movement can have an urgent narrative progression, but a Bruckner movement often seems a series of thoughts. The spaces between the thoughts allow time for the echoing sonorities to disperse in the cathedral before the next phrase happens.

Also, in writing for an orchestra, one of Bruckner's favorite devices was to give a passage to one group of instruments and then abruptly switch to a contrasting group for the next passage. This penchant surely came from his long experience as an organist. On an organ with multiple manuals (keyboards) and diverse stops, sudden contrasts of sound are easily rendered.

The first movement of the Bruckner Third was the most effective. It begins with a murmur in soft strings, from which a pensive trumpet call emerges, along with a horn theme. Though the tempo moves, the progress of events is slow, with the music shifting from brassy bursts to sudden silences.

The slow movement, a flowing Andante, has a theme of Mozartean grace, though the melody is subjected to agitated Romantic development. When the orchestra broke into passages of overlapping lines, it was hard to hear what was going on in the muddle of sound. Similarly the scherzo and the animated finale, with its hints of folk tunes and dances, were at once enticing and exasperating in this acoustic.

My colleague Steve Smith, in his review in The New York Times of Mr. Gilbert's performance of this piece with the Philharmonic last month in Avery Fisher Hall, wrote that the sound of the orchestra in that hall lacked some reverberant lushness. There was no such lack at the cathedral. The piece came across like an organ symphony.

Mr. Gilbert, who has a special affinity for Bruckner, was sensitive to the shifts of character and sound, as well as the blend of gravity and innocence in the music. During the ardent ovation, people crowded close to the players to take photos and videos. That was a real New York Memorial Day.
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